Do the White Thing: Fear Eats the Soul
September 5, 1989
[Spike] Lee is cagey and talented, but he’s a classic art-school dilettante when it comes to politics … His film … is more trendoid than tragic, reflecting the latest rifts in hip black separatism rather than taking an intellectually honest look at the problems he’s nibbling around . … All these subtleties are likely to leave white ( especially white liberal) audiences debating the meaning of Spike Lee’s message. Black teenagers won’t find it so hard, though. For them, the message is clear … The police are your enemy … Whites are your enemy.
— Joe Klein, New York Magazine
I’D LIKE TO SHARE A STORY with Joe Klein. Though perhaps in light of the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, its moral may have already occurred to him.
One summer afternoon in New Haven, a white friend went walking with her white boyfriend through the green across from Yale’s old campus. Most students had cleared out, leaving this economically depressed and predominantly black and Italian city to its own devices. Viv and Ned passed three young black men who were hanging out on a bench, cranking a radio, blasting a song called “Drop a Bomb On the White Nation.” According to Viv, the homies said nothing, maybe didn’t even notice them; but she sure noticed them. All of a sudden, she said later, she was convinced they wanted to kill her. Why? Because she was white.
Now, I understand fear and feeling endangered — that, unfortunately, is feminine intuition — but when this story was related to me I just laughed. It all seemed so obvious: Here’s this nice white student continuing on the road to economic ascendancy — a very complicated given predicated on a racist, classist system. (Forgive the revolutionary tone.) Here are these young black men — statistically, their stars are not rising. They were just listening to the radio. What was she thinking? Her racial anxiety didn’t just shift, it flipped: subconsciously, she concluded that if we black folks aren’t mad at white folks, we should be. Repressing this conclusion, she arrived at a blind sense of threat. Others go further: Some of the best white supremacist rhetoric is couched in the language of self-defense.
I’m not a fan of reading movies as ambiguous and nuanced as Do the Right Thing as agitprop, or even thinking that a director has the special handle on his film; Spike has said some iffy things. Even so, when Joe Klein wrote that the film might lead to riotous behavior on the level of the Central Park Horror, he turned reality on its head. Instead, why didn’t he envision this, more common scenario: in a city tense about race issues, a gang of white youths hunt down four black men and kill one of them.
Klein seems unable to accept that black moviegoers can become angry without rioting; he also ignores the possibility of backlash, of a reverse race riot. But while Klein is baffled by the complexities of what Lee put onscreen, the residents of Bensonhurst are unable to admit the simple reality of what happened on their streets. Witness the defensiveness of their responses: it wasn’t racism, it was a case of mistaken identity, or the age-old axe murder/rapist/molestor/batterer defense, “He couldn’t have done it, he was always a nice guy.” The fact is, you don’t know whether someone is racist until they come face to face with another race — or until they feel the need to justify the racist actions of a neighbor.
This past Sunday my brother, some friends, and I were having brunch. One person at the table was reading the cover of The Daily News, something about watermelons and a jeering crowd of young Bensonhurst residents out to rid the neighborhood of protestors. Watermelons and racist exhibitionists and another black death in New York City. Suddenly, it was all too cartoonish and hopeless. My brother just began to laugh his beautiful soft laugh, slightly hysterical. I joined in — our two friends, both white, just looked horrified. ■
Next: “This Land Is Your Land” by Joe Wood